languagegodsWhen I ask “Who is your language god?”, I don’t mean “Which polyglot or hyperpolyglot do you idolize?”. In many religions, there are a number of gods who are associated with certain specific jobs or items.

The Hindu god of vegetation is Soma. The Greek god of wine and fertility is Dionysus. For the Egyptians, the goddess of protection and cats is Bast. Faunus is the Roman god of flocks and shepherds.

There are literally hundreds of god and goddesses attributed to everything from the moon to beauty to war to fools. You could think of them as “household Gods”. You didn’t just pray to one; you prayed to (or cursed) whichever deity suited the occasion.

So, as a language learner, whom do you pray to before that big test on Chinese? Who do you curse when you mix your German verb tenses? Who do you thank when you manage to correctly ask (and understand the reply for) “सौ्चालय् कहा् है?” when you need to relieve yourself while exploring the streets of India?

Now, I know that you probably don’t have any special god or goddess for this purpose and would simply invoke the deity of your religion. You might not even have a religion, making the entire question useless. Why even drag religion into languages?

Well, part of the reason we learn languages is to understand other cultures, and religion is often a big part of a culture, even if we ourselves are no religious. I do not personally get involved with religious beliefs, but I recognize that praying to a higher being is an expression of seeking strength and hope, while cursing a deity is a way to vent our anger, frustration and hurt.

Also, talking about deities in a cultural aspect can be educational as well as fun.

So in order to answer this question you may or may not have ever thought about, I have done some research into a few religions. Now, most modern religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Flying Spaghetti Monster) only have a single deity, so there isn’t really anything to look at there; the respective god of each is omnipotent, ruling everything. It is the older ones we need to look at for more diversity.

Probably the most famous of pantheons is that of the Romans and Greeks, which often coincide in stories but differ only in the names. (Extra credit here: Which single deity has the same name in both Roman and Greek mythology?).

If you wish to look to a Greek god for your divine language inspiration, Hermes would be your guy. Called Mercury by the Romans, Hermes is the “god of language, learning & crafty wiles”. This aspect of him is related to Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. Hermes is said to have been the inventor of writing, and he is also the one who taught mankind their many tongues. In the latter, he would be the cause of the “babelisation” of language. Some also refer to him as the “god of translators and interpreters”, but that is more due to personal interpretations of his classification.

Many of the gods and goddesses also multitask, and Hermes is no exception. He is also the god of (deep breath here) animal husbandry, heralds, birds of omen, thieves & trickery, trade & merchants, roads, travellers & hospitality, feasts & banquets, sleep & dreams of omen, rustic divination, contests, gymnasiums & the games, astronomy & the calendar, rustic music, poetry & animal fables. Hermes is also the protector of the home and guide of the dead. And you thought you had too many things to do!

Now, if Egyptian mythology is your thing, then you need to look for Djhuty, or Thoth. He is the god of the moon, of reckoning, of learning, and of writing.

For our purposes, he is credited as being the inventor of writing and the creator of languages. His job is to be the scribe, interpreter, and adviser of the gods. As a bonus, Thoth is represented as having the head and neck of an ibis, which is large bird with a very long beak. Don’t you think that would make it rather hard to speak?

On the Hindu side, we have Vac, or in this setting, Sarasvati, who is essentially in charge of protection, purification, offerings, and communication. She is closely associated with the spoken word and fresh flowers, so I guess she would be considered the Hindu god of language. She also uses her powers to banish any lingering doubts or negativity, which can really help when you are learning a language.

As we have Roman and Greek gods and goddess that are essentially the same between religions, through a process called syncretism, similar relations are drawn between Asian deities. The equivalence of Sarasvati in the Japanese culture is Benzaiten. Also known as Benten, she is the goddess of everything that flows, which includes water, music, words, and speech. She is the third daughter of the dragon-king of Munetsuchi and protects and bestows good fortune on the Japanese people.

Now, if you haven’t heard of these deities before, don’t be disappointed. I am guessing most people don’t know of them or their connection to languages. However, if you have studied alphabets, then I am sure you have heard of this next one.

Ogma is the Celtic god of education, genius, eloquence, magic, and language. Why I say you should recognize the name is because he is credited with creating the runic alphabet called Ogham. It was used primarily to write the early Irish language, and was normally seen carved on stone and wood. Since this is an alphabet that we can actually identify, I relate much more closely to Ogma than the others.

Now, I consider religion to be personal, and so I have a personal favourite language deity. He may not even be directly associated with languages, but his famous building certainly is.

The most famous construction in language history / mythology is, without a doubt, the Tower of Babel.

According to the Book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible, this was used to explain the origin of different languages. The story tells of a united humanity, a few generations after the Great Flood which was sent by God to cleanse the Earth of man’s evils. These people had a single language and were migrating from the east, coming to the land of Shinar.

There, they started to settle, building a city and then a great tower. They wanted to establish themselves so they would not be forgotten, and they wanted the tower to reach into the heavens. God, seeing this, and realizing that while they were unified, there was nothing they could not achieve, then “confused their language” so that they could not longer understand each other, after which they abandoned the tower. Thus the tower was named “Babel”, allegedly after the Hebrew word balal, meaning “to jumble”.

I always found this part a little nonsensical, language wise. If the tower is only referred to as Babel after the people have been scattered, what did the original builders call it? They surely would not have called it “Babel”, because that would have been somewhat predicting the future. The name actually was given by the Babylonians, and in Akkadian, it means “Gate of God”. The Christians just wanted to take credit for it later.

So who were these people? According to the Bible, Babel formed part of Nimrod’s kingdom, although it does not specifically say that Nimrod ordered the building of the tower. Nimrod was the king of Shinar, which is the name the Bible associates with Babylonia and the Mesopotamian region. There are the remains of a massive structure, called a ziggurat, in that region.

The Etemenanki (Sumerian for “temple of the foundation of heaven and earth”) was the name of this building, and it was dedicated to Marduk in the 6th century BCE (“Before the Common Era”, a term used in place of “BC”, since the latter refers to Christianity, and not all archaeologist are Christians).

Marduk was the patron deity of the city of Babylon. He was associated with water, vegetation, judgement, and magic. Marduk’s supremacy is described in the Babylonian creation story “Enûma Eliš”, when he battles and defeats the chaos monster Tiamat.

So what does Marduk have to do with languages? Well, strictly speaking, very little.

But the way I see it, it was him to whom the tower was being built, the one that caused the Christian god to confuse the people into many languages. So, in a way, Marduk is the one who caused the birth of languages.

So, for me, Marduk is my language god. When I want help in studying, I say “By Marduk’s Tower”. When something startles me, I say “Sweet mother of Marduk!”, and when I am angry, I cry out “Marduk’s marbles!”.

Okay. I don’t really say those things, but I should. That would be cool.

Please let me know which of these language god or goddesses you like. I am sure I missed some important deities that could be connected to languages and words, so please tell me of them. We really need a whole pantheon of our own!

  • Well, Catholicism has St. Jerome as the patron saint of Translators. Spain uses St. Isidore of Seville as its patron saint for Spanish philologists (and the Internet!). Eastern Christianity veneates St Cyril and Methodius. Many Native American cultures call their languages, “the language of people/land” (e.g. mapudungun or quechua/runa simi).

    • Erik Zidowecki

      Thanks Cristóbal! I hadn’t thought about how the Catholics have their “patron saints” of various things. I don’t know anything about Native American deities, I confess.

      • For every action, trade or anything, there is a Catholic Patron Saint. I’ll have to dig into my book on Chilean native religions and beliefs to see if there’s something about language.

  • I haven’t thought about this specific question yet but I while reading the article I immediately thought of St. Jerome, whom Cristóbal already mentioned. He is the patron saint of us translators and when I hear the word patron saint I have to think about my grandma who believes in the help of the patrons.

    Sometimes I think it would be helpful to believe in a higher power (which I’m unable to do) but I usually come to the conclusion that what all religions call God/Gods/Godness/… is just a collective word for good values. And although I’m not religious I truly believe in these values. Be it in language learning or in daily life 😉

    • Erik Zidowecki

      Dani, I believe similarly. For me, religion (and science) is just our way of trying to explain the world around us, and thus personal. Some people attach to a religion that has the same values so that they have something to point to for what they do. I like the study of the older religions, because they give us some insights to how people viewed the world. And you have to admit.. they give us some pretty wild stories.:)

      The way I use the concept of a “higher power” is that we all come from the same pool of cosmic energy. We walk this earth, then we return to it. When I remind myself of that, it sometimes makes it easier to get along with others. But that isn’t quite as exciting as Norse gods fighting frost giants, or Marduk battling a chaos monster!